Street children trying to survive in "Sunshine city"

Africa Unity Square, near the parliament building on Nelson Mandela Avenue, is one of the main parks in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city. The main entrance is adorned with a billboard calling on residents to keep the city clean and maintain its reputation as the "Sunshine City".

A few yards from the dilapidated billboard, six members of a street family - one of hundreds in the city - are having their lunch. They survive by begging and scavenging garbage bins for food and anything saleable.

"We have been at this park for the past three years," said Merjury Mazambani. She used to live in Mhondoro, a rural village 100 km outside the capital, but in 1997 she lost her husband, father of her three children. "I had problems with my husband's family after his death and could not get food, so I decided to move," she said.

A few meters from Mazambani, street children from 11 to 25 years old, who represent a significant population of Zimbabwe's urban dwellers, are directing traffic or washing cars.

Shingi Mariot, 14, came to Harare from Rusape, nearly 200 km east of the capital. "I was living with my stepmother, but she used to beat me up and deny me food." He left school at grade 6, but wants an education.

In September last year, thousands of street children, including Mariot, were bundled into a government truck and dumped in Marondera, nearly 100 km outside Harare. Almost all the children have since found their way back to the city and are now more vigilant when it comes to dealing with the local municipal and national police.

"We survive by taking care of cars and getting a little money from their owners," Mariot said.

The community of street children in Harare is largely made up of boys, some as young as three years old, and girls up to the age of 11. As they get older, girls move from the streets to nightspots, such as restaurants, nightclubs and beer halls. Many girls have turned to prostitution as a means of survival.

"We are hired for any amounts that start from Zim $20,000 (about US $3) for a short time, to Zim $150,00 (US $26) if you want our services for a night", said Sharon, who refused to divulge her last name.

She works at a nightclub on Nelson Mandela Avenue that opens as early as 12 pm, purportedly to cater for school children. Although the club says it does not sell alcohol to anybody aged below 18, a visit any day of the week would prove otherwise.

Sharon said some of her friends in the sex trade have become "prosperous" and are now renting small rooms in the high-density suburbs surrounding the city centre.

Zimbabwe's unemployment rate is 80 percent. The UN Economic Commission for Africa said in a report last year that Zimbabwe recorded a Gross Domestic Product growth rate of -5.5, a product of the country's long-standing economic crisis.